Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
Corrected and searchable version of Google books edition

Download review of Lectures on Biostatistics (THES, 1973).

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David Colquhoun

This post is nerdy university politics stuff, but it matters a lot to some of us.

I have always been impressed by the lack of interest that management theorists, and education theorists, show in subjecting their ideas to empirical tests. Edinburgh University was one of the first to go down the path down which other places (including UCL) are now heading like so many lemmings.

Edinburgh abolished their departments in 2002, and, in 2005 they conducted a review of what had ensued, The responses make interesting reading (not least because much of what they say is remarkably similar to points that I have made again and again, to no effect).

Sadly, I have only just come across these documents. I wonder if our own managers have read them?

Let’s start with quotations from the university’s 2005 review document

“In 2002 the University made some radical changes to its structures. It abolished its previous structure of Faculties and Departments for academic purposes and Faculty Groups and Planning Units for planning and resourcing, and replaced these with a single integrated structure consisting of three Colleges and 21 Schools. Previous arrangements for electing Heads of Department and Deans were replaced by competitive appointment to the new management positions, after external advertisement for Heads of College.”

. . .

The Review Group found, from the evidence provided and gathered, that the implementation of a new organisational structure in 2002 had been strategically astute, leading to clear benefits to the institution as a whole.

. . .

This is not to say that feedback provided by colleagues to the Review was wholly positive

That last quotation must rank as as the understatement of the decade. You can read the responses at http://www.aaps.ed.ac.uk/restreview/responses/. Here are some quotations from them,

Professor R G M Morris, FRS, School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Like the Principal, I also think there are merits in the new arrangements that have already and will continue to yield benefits.

However, I think we should also have the courage and self-confidence to recognise a major downside. As I write, Harvard University is in uproar about some reported comments of their President, Larry Summers, about the paucity of women in science.

It would never happen at Edinburgh because – bluntly – we have become comatose. Perhaps I am not in the right place, but no one seems to discuss openly about anything that really matters to the University. We simply keep our heads down and try to get on with our teaching and research. Perhaps that is a good thing, and the debate at Harvard is but “hot air” when everyone would be better spending time in the lab or the library. But ‘m not sure. For there is a confidence and elan about the Harvard academic staff that, presently, seems to have been lost in Edinburgh – a loss that has coincided with the introduction of the Schools.

This loss is particularly reflected in the very few responses you have received to date to this circular. It is as if no one cares. And that, frankly, is deeply worrying. In the old rough and tumble of the ostensibly “inefficient”  Departmental system, we would have regular staff meetings and actually debate things – and we did this because the voice of everyone in a Department mattered. We had postdoctoral staff and postgraduate students at our staff meetings – their voice mattered too and we listened to what they had to say. It feels to me that this overt recognition of the value of the academic community in Edinburgh is no longer the case. The School of which I am now a member has had two meetings in three years, and with so many people present in a large lecture theatre, the atmosphere was not conducive to discussion and debate.

In conclusion, Edinburgh University is at risk of becoming a place where bland, respectable comment replaces genuine debate. I am wary of this absence, because I am deeply distrustful of the credibility of anyone unprepared to debate openly and honestly. The senior management may, of course, be so busy juggling their managerial role with continuing academic life that they are unaware of this developing problem. Surely the business model can work hand-in-hand with a managerial framework that supports genuine intellectual debate?

Richard Morris, D.Phil., F.R.S.
Professor of Neuroscience
Division of Neuroscience
School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Dr Ian Astley, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

I hardly know where to start with all this. It is abundantly clear, both from my own meditations and from discussions with colleagues — academic colleagues — that the recent changes to the university’s structure have been a radical contravention of everything which a university should stand for. Real opportunities for debate and democratic determination have been stifled, all in the service of a dogma of efficiency which it is impossible to describe or account for.

Professor Alan Murray, School of Engineering and Electronics, 4/02/05

One aspect of the old system that has, sadly, been largely lost, particularly in areas where modestly-sized departments have been merged in to larger schools, is the feeling of community and common purpose across research and teaching activities. The replacement of Departments by Research Institutes (and I am head of one) has not created new communities of the same nature and size. One particularly unfortunate result of this change has been the effective marginalisation of colleagues whose primary focus is on teaching and support of teaching activities.

Alan Murray
Professor Alan F. Murray,
Head of the Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems,
School of Engineering and Electronics,

Dr Don Glass, School of Engineering & Electronics, 14/02/05

The restructuring has transformed the University into a rather top-down structure with a much smaller number of much larger administrative units.

The Research Institutes do not yet provide the sense of identity, cohesion and support that the old departments (whatever their failings) did. The Heads of Institute have done their best but are hampered by the physical dispersion of their staff and by restricted budgets.

Academic staff in particular, and technical and clerical staff to a lesser degree, feel that they are much less in control of their lives than was previously the case. This leads to stress and poor morale.

The Teaching Organisation has worked well at the strategic level (compliance with the requirements of the Curriculum Project, for example) and at the most basic level of timetabling, classroom allocation, collection of completed coursework, recording of marks etc. However, the diversity of the engineering disciplines and the curriculum requirements of the professional institutions have meant that accreditation, curriculum development and the allocation of teaching duties have fallen to the Heads of Discipline. These individuals have no budget at their disposal, no formal authority, no clerical or other support, no formal reward and little recognition. It is surprising that anyone can be found to take on the job.

Heads of School are expected to act as Line Managers for units containing in most cases over 100 academic and support staff. In industry or the civil service, this would be regarded as ludicrously burdensome, and I am at a loss to understand why the university feels that it can expect this level of output from its senior staff.

Improvement of the dissemination of information to ordinary members of staff would improve morale. In the old days, heads of department would ensure that their staff were kept abreast of developments: this does not happen to the same extent now. Equally, inclusion of more staff at an earlier stage in decision-making would not merely improve acceptance of change but would also possibly deliver better thought-out policy My suggestion would be to recognise the Disciplines as bodies responsible for professional representation, curriculum development and accreditation. They would provide a ‘home’ for staff excluded from the Research Institutes.

Professor Andrew Barker, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 14/02/05

You write:

‘The process has been generally been well received and, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Timothy O’Shea points out, “has aroused interest (and even emulation) in other institutions”.’

And in so doing you simply add to the disenchantment which, as you must surely know, has followed upheavals of the last couple of years. Could you not have initiated the debate without such self-congratulatory spin?

At the same time as there have been gains, there have also been losses. Above all, and one hears the complaint time and again, it is felt that restructuring has led to a diminished sense of belonging to an academic community. The abolition of the democratic faculty structure has fuelled a feeling of disempowerment and atomisation which does not help morale at a time when colleagues are assailed by new developments on all sides

What is needed, I feel, is a movement to re-engage colleagues with the
university: to let them feel that it is indeed ‘their’ university, that they are not merely a workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above. At a quite mundane level, provision of common room facilities (so spectacularly absent for those working in the George Square area) would enable us to re-establish contact with colleagues from other disciplines.

Professor Charles Warlow, Professor of Medical Neurology, Molecular and Clinical Medicine, 14/02/05

I start from the position that the structure of a University should enable academics to do research and teach, and have time to think and write which are so important in both.

Clinical academics like myself are -for better or worse – often rather disconnected from the rest of their Universities, partly because we often work way from the centre of the University, partly because we don’t think in terms (or now semesters), and partly because we have patient care concerns. Nonetheless it is good to feel part of and supported by an institution which facilitates and nurtures our research and teaching. I did feel this, when I was in a group then called a Department of Clinical Neurosciences which was part of a faculty then called Medicine, all of which I could naturally relate to and which mapped on to my clinical work and teaching. But now we have Divisions (in my case more or less the same as the old Department), Centres and Schools -two extra layers of management between us in the trenches and the College (was faculty) and Head of College (was Dean). And we do not seem to have any ‘faculty’ meetings any more, one of the very few opportunities to meet up with colleagues from not just my own hospital but with others across town (the Royal Infirmary, Royal Edinburgh Hospital etc). It as an irony that as we have moved to Colleges we have become less ‘collegiate’.

For me there has not only been a loss of collegiality, and so opportunity for cross fertilisation between medical disciplines, but there has been no advantage in terms of teaching or research. As far as teaching goes, the Divisional, Centre and School structure seems to be all about research with an eye on the RAE – not teaching. And it is particularly inappropriate to exclude researchers from Centres, these people may well be struggling and so in need of support. The notion that the new administrative structure encourages inter-disciplinarity – in medical research at least – is just not true.

I cannot see any efficiency gains from where I sit. Personally, I feel more disconnected from the Heads of this and that than ever I did before (but I certainly do not envy them their task, far more complicated, bureaucratic and time consuming than ever it was when I was Head of Clinical Neurosciences)

Sadly however, although I once felt a sense of belonging and so loyalty to the University as a collegiate bunch of academics, in it for teaching and research, this is not so much how I feel now that it seems more of an impersonal business hierarchy.

Professor Jean Duffy, Professor John Renwick, Mr Philip Bennett, Dr Véronique Desnain, Dr Marion Schmid, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 17/02/05

The new structures were originally presented to us, at the open meeting held by Stewart Sutherland, as a means of streamlining and reducing bureaucracy. Yet, the restructuring has involved the interposition of an extra administrative layer, the creation of a substantial number of administrative posts, including new senior management posts and a labyrinthine bureaucracy.

In an earlier exchange with Senior Vice-Principal Anderson regarding space matters, he commented that it is ‘virtually impossible to work out in any realistic way what the net cost [of the restructuring] (and the medium-term benefit) has been’. We find this extraordinary: any organisation employing a large workforce (in this case, 6,800 and Edinburgh’s third biggest employer, according to the web site) and with responsibility for the education of over 20,000 students and large amounts of taxpayers’ money ought to be able work out such sums.

Faculty meetings have been replaced by “plenaries” in which very little, if any, real business is done, no major decisions are ever taken (even in a School which voted to retain decision-making powers), and in which academics are informed about decisions that have been taken elsewhere. The former Faculty of Arts did have the capacity to influence the decisions of Central Management, even if it exercised that power rather too rarely. In the new structures, any power to influence has been effectively diluted, largely because we do not have an equivalent formal assembly designed to encourage or even permit full participatory debate and because the burden of representation falls upon a few individuals. Thus divided, we are much easier to rule, even if that was not the intention.

To be fair to the new Management Team, it did not create the original template for restructuring; as we understand it, it was presented with a fait accompli and a huge task of implementation. No doubt the new structures can be made to work in more user-friendly ways, but the University needs to relearn -and fast – how to listen to its academic staff. This institution has a great many staff who are committed to teaching and to research, who have willingly shouldered heavy administrative burdens often over long periods, and they have to feel that they have a voice.

The good will of academic staff is one of the University’s most precious resources; it is certainly its cheapest: after all, it is that good will which makes so very many individuals start work early, finish late, work every weekend and not take their full annual leave. If the University has common sense, it will invest in it, not exhaust it.

Professor Colin Nicholson, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

In its 2001 Resolution concerning proposed changes to academic management the University Court made its intentions clear. In order to enable the university to respond effectively to the altered economic circumstances in which we must now operate, Court deemed it desirable:

to reorganise the system of academic management in the University “in a way which sustains the teaching and research of the University to the highest standards and which maintains and enhances the quality of the university as an academic community of international standing”.

These sensible priorities were echoed in a Court paper of March 2002 . . .

These intentions have been radically betrayed. In a range of senior voices all across the University, from Kings Buildings to George Square to High School Yards we are hearing the same thing -that an academic community now feels reduced to an atomised and disempowered workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above.

The expression and experience within and across the academic community, of disaffection, demoralisation, disenfranchisement and alienation that we have been reporting on for several months requires urgent redress.

Dr Sarah Carpenter, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

But for equally practical reasons it actually it seems to have reduced the opportunities for academic co-operation with subject areas beyond the School. As a member of the former Faculty of Arts I encountered regularly colleagues from a range of disciplines across the Faculty, not only in Faculty meetings, but in administrative and other activities from which academic co-operation might flow. There is no longer any forum or space in which I encounter these colleagues.

There is certainly a strong perception among academic staff that the new system is in a phrase many have used “top-heavy”, and in some areas more rather than less cumbersome. In terms of streamlining and simplifying administrative procedure the system is experienced as adding a new layer.

The new structures have not allowed for any forums beyond the School in which staff can express and debate views, and pass them on to those who will make decisions (this is allied to the loss of meeting opportunities).

Probably allied to this is a perception that not only are decisions for implementation handed down from the centre, often by rather tenuous chains of information distribution, but that the university does not recognise or acknowledge the level of effort required to implement them.

Professor Brian Charlesworth, School of Biological Sciences, 04/02/05

I do not regard developments associated with the restructuring at all favourably. This has introduced a far more ‘top-down’ style of management, with over large units whose heads know little of what is going on at the grassroots level. The academic staff are being issued with orders instead of being consulted, and constantly being forced to implement ever more bureaucracy. In the long term, this will lead to creative people leaving the university, and only the mediocrities who are prepared to cringe to the men in suits will remain. I sense that this is already starting to happen.

It seems that little notice was taken of any of these comments. Well well, There’s a surprise.

Guardian science web site image
How irrational thinking in government and universities has led to the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science.

This article appeared on 15th August 2007, on the Guardian Science web site.

The Guardian made very few cuts to the original version, but removed a lot of the links. If you want to have references to some of the claims that are made, try the original, which I reproduce here. [Download this as pdf]

The Guardian Science site also has a piece on this topic by Alok Jha: Reigniting the enlightenment How do we win back our civilisation from the jaws of darkness?
Comments can be left there too.

A German translation of this piece has been posted at the Mental health blog.

A Russian translation (draft version) has appeared here . There is also a Russian translation of How to Get Good Science which can be found here.

Etymological note. The word endarkenment has been used by several people as an antonym for the enlightenment, but the first time it caught my eye was in an article in 2005 by Gerald Weissman, The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment. The article opens thus.

“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures.”

Science in an Age of Endarkenment

“Education: Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.”
Michael O’Donnell, in A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997).

The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?

The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.

This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minute’s notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.It matters when reputable accountants delude themselves into thinking that Enron-style accounting is acceptable.

It matters when people are deluded into thinking that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing themselves and others.

It matters when bishops attribute floods to a deity whose evident vengefulness and malevolence leave one reeling. And it matters when science teachers start to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago.

These are serious examples of the endarkenment mentality, but I’ll stick with my day job and consider what this mentality is doing to science.

One minor aspect of the endarkenment has been a resurgence in magical and superstitious ideas about medicine. The existence of homeopaths on the High Street won’t usually do too much harm. Their sugar pills contain nothing. They won’t poison your body; the greater danger is that they poison your mind.

It is true that consulting a homeopath could endanger your health if it delays proper diagnosis, or if they recommend sugar pills to prevent malaria, but the real objection is cultural. Homeopaths are a manifestation of a society in which wishful thinking matters more than truth; a society where what I say three times is true and never mind the facts.

If this attitude were restricted to half-educated herbalists and crackpot crystal gazers, perhaps one could shrug it off. But it isn’t restricted to them. The endarkenment extends to the highest reaches of the media, government and universities. And it corrupts science itself.

Even respectable newspapers still run nonsensical astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated homeopathic treatment of foot and mouth disease. Caroline Flint condoned homeopathy, and Lord Hunt referred to ‘psychic surgery’ as a “profession” in a letter written in response to question by a clinical scientist

Under the influence of the Department of Health, normally sane pharmacologists on the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority, which is meant to “ensure the medicines work”, changed the rules to allow homeopathic and herbal products to be labelled, misleadingly, with “traditional” uses, while requiring no evidence to be produced that they work.

Tony Blair himself created religiously-divided schools at a time when that has never been more obviously foolish, and he defended in the House of Commons, schools run by ‘young-earth creationists‘, the lunatic fringe of religious zealots. The ex-Head Science teacher at Emmanuel College said

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm . . . is explicitly mentioned . . . we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”:

That is not from the fundamentalists of the southern USA, but from Gateshead, UK.

The Blairs’ fascination with pendulum wavers, crystals and other new age nonsense is well known. When their elders set examples like that, is it any surprise that over 30% of students in the UK now say they believe in creationism and “intelligent design”? As Steve Jones has pointed out so trenchantly, this makes it hard to teach them science at all. Welcome back, Cardinal Bellarmine.

Homeopaths and herbalists may be anti-science but they are not nearly as worrying as the university vice-chancellors who try to justify the giving of bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core. How, one may well ask, have universities got into the embarrassing position of having to answer questions like that?

Here are a couple of examples of how. The University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN). The give-away is the term Nutritional Therapy . They are the folks who claim, with next to no evidence, that changing your diet, and buying from them a lot of expensive ‘supplements’, will cure almost any disease (even AIDS and cancer).

The IoN is run by Patrick Holford, whose only qualification in nutrition is a diploma awarded to himself by his own Institute. His advocacy of vitamin C as better than conventional drugs to treat AIDS is truly scary. His pretensions have been analysed effectively by Ben Goldacre, and by Holfordwatch.. See the toe-curling details on badscience.net .

The documents that relate to this accreditation are mind-boggling. One of the recommended books for the course, on “Energy Medicine” (a subject that is pure fantasy) has been reviewed thus.

“This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief.”.

The report of Luton’s Teaching Quality and Enhancement Committee (May 24th 2004) looks terribly official, with at least three “quality assurance” people in attendance. But the minutes show that they discussed almost everything about the course apart from the one thing that really matters, the truth of what was being taught. The accreditation was granted. It’s true that the QAA criticised Luton for this, but only because they failed to tick a box, not because of the content of the course.

The University of Central Lancashire ‘s justification for its BSc in Homeopathic Medicine consists of 49 pages of what the late, great Ted Wragg might have called “world-class meaningless bollocks”. All the buzzwords are there “multi-disciplinary delivery”, “formative and summative assessment”, log books and schedules. But not a single word about the fact that the course is devoted to a totally discredited early 19th century view of medicine. Not a single word about truth and falsehood. Has it become politically incorrect to ask questions like that? The box-ticking mentality is just another manifestation of the endarkenment thought. If you tick a box to say that you are fully-qualifed at laying-on-of-hands, that is good enough. You have done the course, and it is irrelevant whether the course teaches rubbish.

These examples, and many like them, result, I believe from the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of science and education. Power has gradually ebbed away from the people who do the research and teaching, and become centralised in the hands of people who do neither.

The sad thing is that the intentions are good. Taxpayers have every right to expect that their money is well spent, and students have every right to expect that a university will teach them well. How, then, have we ended up with attempts to deliver these things that do more harm than good?

One reason is that the bureaucrats who impose these schemes have no interest in data. They don’t do randomised tests, or even run pilot schemes, on their educational or management theories because, like and old-fashioned clinician, they just know they are right. Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty. Spoofs about the pretentiousness and dishonesty of some science, like that published in The New York Times last year, are too close to the truth to be very funny now.

Science, left to itself, and run by scientists, has created much of the world we live in. It has self-correcting mechanisms built in, so that mistakes, and the occasional bit of fraud, are soon eliminated. Corporatisation has meant that, increasingly, you are not responsible to your conscience, just to your line manager. The result of this, I fear, is a decrease in honesty, and in the long run inevitably a decrease in quality and originality too.

If all we had to worry about was a few potty homeopaths and astrologers, it might be better to shrug, and get on with trying to find some truths about the world. But now the endarkenment extends to parliament, universities and schools, it is far too dangerous to ignore.

Jump to follow-up

Peter A. Lawrence of the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge has written a beautifully argued article, The Mismeasurement of Science. It appeared in Current Biology, August 7, 2007: 17 (15), r583. [Download pdf]

It should be read by every scientist. Even more importantly, it should be read by every vice chancellor and university president, by every HR person and by every one of the legion of inactive scientists who, increasingly, tell active scientists what to do.

Here are some quotations.

“The use of both the H-index and impact factors to evaluate scientists has increased unethical behaviour: it rewards those who gatecrash their names on to author lists. This is very common, even standard, with many people authoring papers whose contents they are largely a stranger to.”

  “. . . trying to meet the measures involves changing research strategy: risks should not be taken . . .”

  “. . . hype your work, slice the findings up as much as possible (four papers good, two papers bad), compress the results (most top journals have little space, a typical Nature letter now has the density of a black hole), simplify your conclusions but complexify the material (more difficult for reviewers to fault it!), . . . .it has become profitable to ignore or hide results that do not fit with the story being sold — a mix of evidence tends to make a paper look messy and lower its appeal.”

“These measures are pushing people into having larger groups. It is a simple matter of arithmetic. Since the group leader authors all the papers, the more people, the more papers. If a larger proportion of young scientists in a larger group fail, as I suspect, this is not recorded. And because no account is taken of wasted lives and broken dreams, these failures do not make a group leader look less productive.”

“It is time to help the pendulum of power swing back to favour the person who actually works at the bench and tries to discover things.”

The position of women

Lawrence argues eloquently a point that I too have been advocating for years. It is well known that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top. This causes much hand-wringing among university bureaucrats, who fail to notice that one reason for it is the very policies that they themselves advocate. Women, I suspect, are less willing to embrace the semi-dishonest means that are needed to advance in science. As Lawrence puts it

“Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

The success of the LMB

It is interesting that Peter Lawrence is associated with the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, one of the most successful labs of all time. In an account of the life of Max Perutz, Danielle Rhodes said this.

“As evidenced by the success of the LMB, Max had the knack of picking extraordinary talent. But he also had the vision of creating a working environment where talented people were left alone to pursue their ideas. This philosophy lives on in the LMB and has been adopted by other research institutes as well. Max insisted that young scientists should be given full responsibility and credit for their work. There was to be no hierarchy, and everybody from the kitchen ladies to the director were on first-name terms. The groups were and still are small, and senior scientists work at the bench. Although I never worked with Max directly, I had the great privilege of sharing a laboratory with him for many years. The slight irritation of forever being taken to be his secretary when answering the telephone—the fate of females—was amply repaid by being able to watch him work and to talk with him. He would come into the laboratory in the morning, put on his lab-coat and proceed to do his experiments. He did everything himself, from making up solutions, to using the spectrophotometer and growing crystals. Max led by example and carried out his own experiments well into his 80s.”

Max Perutz himself, in a history of the LMB said

“Experience had taught me that laboratories often fail because their scientists never talk to each other. To stimulate the exchange of ideas, we built a canteen where people can chat at morning coffee, lunch and tea. It was managed for over twenty years by my wife, Gisela, who saw to it that the food was good and that it was a place where people would make friends. Scientific instruments were to be shared, rather than being jealously guarded as people’s private property; this saved money and also forced people to talk to each other. When funds ran short during the building of the lab, I suggested that money could be saved by leaving all doors without locks to symbolise the absence of secrets.”

That is how to get good science.

Now download a copy of Lawrence’s paper and send it to every bureaucrat in your university.

Follow up

  • The Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 Aug 2007. had a feature on this paper. Read it here if you have a subscription, or download a copy.
  • In the same issue, Denis Noble and Sir Philip Cohen emphasise the importance of basic research. Cohen says

    “In 1994, after 25 years in the relative research wilderness, the whole thing changed.

    “Suddenly I was the best thing since sliced bread,” Sir Philip said. “We set up the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, which is the largest-ever collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and academia in the UK.”

    But the present research funding culture could prevent similar discoveries. “In today’s climate that research would not have been funded,” Sir Philip said. “The space programme hasn’t allowed us to colonise the universe, but it has given us the internet – a big payoff that industry could never have envisaged.” (Download a copy.)

  • Comments from Pennsylvania at http://other95.blogspot.com
  • How to slow down science. Another reference to Lawrence’s paper from a US (but otherwise anonymous) blog, BayBlab.

How to select candidates

I have, at various times, been asked how I would select candidates for a job, if not by counting papers and impact factors. This is a slightly modified version of a comment that I left on a blog, which describes roughly what I’d advocate

After a pilot study the entire Research Excellence Framework (which attempts to assess the quality of research in every UK university) made the following statement.

“No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs”

It seems that the REF is paying attention to the science not to bibliometricians.

It has been the practice at UCL to ask people to nominate their best papers (2 -4 papers depending on age). We then read the papers and asked candidates hard questions about them (not least about the methods section). It’s a method that I learned a long time ago from Stephen Heinemann, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute. It’s often been surprising to learn how little some candidates know about the contents of papers which they themselves select as their best. One aim of this is to find out how much the candidate understands the principles of what they are doing, as opposed to following a recipe.

Of course we also seek the opinions of people who know the work, and preferably know the person. Written references have suffered so much from ‘grade inflation’ that they are often worthless, but a talk on the telephone to someone that knows both the work, and the candidate, can be useful, That, however, is now banned by HR who seem to feel that any knowledge of the candidate’s ability would lead to bias.

It is not true that use of metrics is universal and thank heavens for that. There are alternatives and we use them.

Incidentally, the reason that I have described the Queen Mary procedures as insane, brainless and dimwitted is because their aim to increase their ratings is likely to be frustrated. No person in their right mind would want to work for a place that treats its employees like that, if they had any other option. And it is very odd that their attempt to improve their REF rating uses criteria that have been explicitly ruled out by the REF. You can’t get more brainless than that.

This discussion has been interesting to me, if only because it shows how little bibliometricians understand how to get good science.

That is the title of a paper in the BMJ (11 August 2007, 335, 304) by Anisur Rahman (reader in rheumatology, University College London). He points out the strong disincentives to collaborative work that now exist. One disincentive is the enormous amounts of documentation that is now needed for any sort of clinical research. Another disincentive lies in the daft assessment methods that are becoming fashionable, because they give you very little credit for being one among many authors.

“it could be argued that clinical academics who wish to thrive should avoid taking part in such collaborations—unless they are a lead author”.

Download Rahman’s paper

Contradictions and stress

This paper highlights one of the things that makes academic life so stressful. We are constantly getting contradictory instructions, often from the same department (usually HR). Here are a few to start with.

  • You must produce at least three world-shattering results per year, and everyone must all publish them in the same half-dozen journals. And you must do lots of teaching. And you must fill in all the forms sent to you by HR to say how long you spend on research (but not the hours please, just the percentage). Then the next letter says you must take your full holidays and work a 38 hour week for your work-life balance.
  • We must have no bias against the appointment of women. But remember that the rules of the game make it almost impossible for a woman to get to the top in science if she wants to have children too.
  • You must do lots of collaborative and interdisciplinary work (because that is the buzzword of the moment for the failed postdocs who staff the research councils and journals. Oh, and remember that you must not submit for RAE purposes
    any paper that bears the name of a colleague with whom you collaborate.
  • You must employ only the most brilliant postdocs, but don’t be too assiduous about assessing their ability because that might cause bias. And, by the way, remember that it is essentially impossible to get rid of anyone, however incompetent.
  • In order to ensure a big grant income (to be used in assessing promotion), you must employ lots of postdocs. That ensures you won’t have time to check too carefully what they do, much less do anything original yourself.
  • You must have lots of collegiate spirit, and be able to recite by heart that excruciatingly embarrassing mission statement (oh, and by the way, your department has just been abolished).

Homeopathy doesn’t poison your body, it poisons your mind

Often that is true. Not always though. Homeopathy is worse than just a cultural poison if you die of malaria as a result of advice from a homeopath.

The Newsnight TV programme exposed the fact that many UK homeopaths advise homeopathic pills for prevention of malaria. This strikes me as nothing short of criminal, and it was condemned roundly by more responsible homeopaths like Peter Fisher.

Bur a correspondent has pointed out that there are even more dangerous fantasies around. Direct claims to cure malaria with homeopathic ‘funny water’. [See postscript for some of the US rules.]

He spotted an entry in Facebook that is nothing more than an advertisement for a book, by a Kate Birch.

Kate Birch and malaria treatment

The book being advertised is called Vaccine Free – Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Contagious Diseases with homeopathy. This prompted my correspondent to write to Kate Birch, thus.

3 August 2007


I am planning to work in Nigeria (rather I’m returning to work in Nigeria). I am not keen on subjecting myself once again to anti malarial drugs. I have looked at your facebook page and I am curious as to what Homeopathic remedy would be suitable for Nigeria.
I know that Dr Peter Fisher of the University College Homeopathic Hospital states that Homeopathy is not suitable for prevention or treatment of Malaria. You obviously disagree, and I would like to follow your approach.
Can you advise me please.

He got a long reply to this query (reproduced without copy-editing). The emphasis is mine.

“Thank you for your inquiry. There is a complete chapter on malaria in my book. and Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication.There is a protocol to follow. I have attached it below. however if you need more information I would recommend the book as it goes ointo more detail on the specific remedies and also deals with Yellow fever, dengue, hep A, typhoid etc. just in case. a small remedy kit can get you very far with many of these conditions. check out Washington homeopathics for their travel kits or 50 C potency kit. just watch that the remedies don’t go through the x-ray at the airport or sustain too much heat. both will ruin the remedies. Not only can you help your self but once you get used to understanding the remedies you can help many people.There is a clininc in Tanzania that treats 35,000 people a year with homeopathy. most of their caes are malaria and they have tremendous success rate. get the book and tell your doctor that his information is incomplete.Good luck,

Happy travels,

What? “Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication”? There isn’t of course the slightest bit of reason to believe that sugar pills cure malaria. There follows a long quotation from her book. It is, of course, all fantasy, so I won’t reproduce it. But to give you a feel for the style, just try this bit of high grade new-age boloney from her publisher’s web site.

“Miasmatic influences can accumulate in an individual or in select populations based on their exposure to pathological agents and the ability of the individual to develop immunity. There is a pre-miasmatic state that exists prior to incarnation. It is described as a state of bliss and connection to the universe.”

Who is it who is giving this dangerous and irresponsible advice? Kate Birch is not a back-street quack. ” Since 1990 Kate has over 1900 hours in homeopathic and clinical education”. She is vice president of the North American Society of Homeopaths (NASH). The mind boggles.

Legal and ethical stuff

The North American Society of Homeopaths (NASH) has a code of ethics. It includes this.

“3.01 Where the homeopath considers that the treatment is beyond his/her capacity or skill, the patient with the homeopath’s consent shall refer to or consult with a homeopathic colleague or appropriate health care practitioner.”

and their Standards of Practice Guidelines say

“Do not claim that you can treat any disease, condition or ailment or imply that you can do so.

Be extremely careful when speaking or writing about the treatment of particular diseases or conditions (and never offer or claim to help anybody). “

If you consider that Ms Birch is “acting beyond her capacity” in recommending treatment for malaria, contact NASH at NashInfo@homeopathy.org

The UK Society of Homeopaths made the following statement, after the Newsnight TV programme.

The Society of Homeopaths, the UK’s largest register of professional homeopaths, acknowledges that malaria is a serious and life-threatening condition and that there is currently no peer reviewed research to support the use of homeopathy as an anti-malarial treatment.

The North American Society seems to take a very different view.

The American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists (AAHP) says

“Remember, although homeopathy has been shown to treat symptoms of infectious and epidemic diseases, Federal law prohibits the sale of products for these symptoms as OTC products. Accordingly, the AAHP makes clear its position that websites and marketers selling homeopathic medicines as OTC products for epidemic and infectious diseases may be in violation of Federal law.”

Question for US readers. Does this mean Ms Birch is breaking the law?

Kate Birch replies

Soon after posting this, I got this email from Kate Birch, vice president of the North American Society of Homeopaths. She has also posted a comment below.

Believe it or not, I don’t really like the ad hominem stuff at all.
But there are limits, and one limit is when people are given advice that is likely to kill them.

Thanks for all the publicity. I hope books sales will go through the roof now seeing as every homeopath around the world is following what you are up to. We know what we are doing even if you don’t understand it. You must be really bored, preoccupied, or need attention in order to spend your time instigating controversy, hype, and slander.What you resist will persist.
Kate Birch

PS I didn’t appreciate being set up for your antics. And it is a good thing you didn’t post the excerpt from my book or you would be liable for copy write infringement. And FYI the letter you posted (as below) isn’t the letter I received. The doctor was never named in the letter I received. You could be liable for fraud too as this is not the letter I responded to. Therefore my comments were taken out of context and made to look like I was disagreeing with Dr Peter Fisher. “I know that Dr Peter Fisher of the University College Homeopathic Hospital states that Homeopathy is not suitable for prevention or treatment of Malaria. You obviously disagree,” This sentence was not in the original letter and has been added in your blog to inflame the situation. get your facts strait before you go making such accusations.

I’m trying to establish exactly what letter was sent to her (it wasn’t sent by me), but it really hardly matters whether the sentence about Dr Fisher was in it or not.Yes, I presume the original letter was designed to elicit Ms Birch’s opinions about the treatment of malaria. And it did. “There is a complete chapter on malaria in my book. and Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication“.Here is part of my reply.

Peter Fisher, as I imagine you know, is clinical director of the Royal London Homeooathic Hospital (which will probably close soon), and homeopathic physician to the Queen (our royal family, I fear, is better at pageantry than intellect). On the occasion when it was revealed that London homeopaths were recommending homeopathic pills for prevention (not even cure) of malaria, Fisher’s words were

“I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.”

You can read this on the BBC report.

At least it seems that there is very radical disagreement between one homeopath and another.

Now let’s get back to the clinic in Tanzania that has achieved such miracles?

Sham cures in Africa

Use Google to search for ‘homeopathic malaria Tanzania’ and you will get an astonishing number of direct claims to cure malaria with sugar pills. Claims are all you will get though, no evidence that any of them work.

For example, The Abha Light College in Nairobi, Kenya, refers to a report about homeopathic malaria prevention in 152 Tanzanian patients. This “study” had no control group with which to compare the effects of homeopathic neem leaves, and comments “Considering the exploratory nature of the study, no statistical significance testing was planned”.

It is not worth the paper it’s written on.

The same “study” is cited by the Global Resource Alliance, Inc., based in California. This seems to be a well-meaning organisation which, through its devotion to quackery, is helping to spread malaria in Africa.

Demal 200

A company called giftofafrica says of its homeopathic malaria treatment.

“Demal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs.”

This direct claim of effectiveness is mind-bogglingly irresponsible.

This “remedy” contains nothing whatsoever apart from 15% alcohol, It is a 200C homeopathic preparation. That is a dilution if 1 part in 10 to the power 400. There would not be a single molecule in a volume vastly larger than that of all the water on the earth (a mere 13 times 10 to the power 21 litres).

There is, of course, the usual small print at the bottom of the page, that contradicts the claims in large print.

*Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease. Any form of self-treatment or alternative health program necessarily must involve an individual’s acceptance of some risk. It is advised that you consult your doctor before making any health decision. Demal 200 is primarily sold as a malaria treatment, it’s prophylactic qualities are secondary to it’s intended use which is to treat chronic or acute malaria.

. . .

Because Demal 200 has not yet been conclusively scientifically tested, it is not licensed for medical use in European Union; North America and Australasia. Please note: The staff of Shoponlion Ltd and their families have successfully used Demal 200 as a prophylactic but are not in a position to guarantee the efficacy of this medicine.

The company selling this stuff is based in Wolverhampton, UK. It costs £31.99 (or $56.40) for 30 ml of 15% alcohol. That is an £1066 per litre: expensive way to get drunk (which is all this stuff will do for you).


Of course no evidence at all is offered that it works. Just the usual list of testimonials from people who didn’t happen to get malaria.

If you like anecdotes, you can read here the stories of some people who were less lucky.


“Quackery hinders AIDS treatment efforts” is the title of an article in Science in Africa.

And let’s not forget the efforts of Patrick Holford for health in Africa.

FDA rules about homeopathy

The FDA’s rules include the following statement.

7. Health Fraud: The deceptive promotion, advertisement, distribution or sale of articles, intended for human or animal use, that are represented as being effective to diagnose, prevent, cure, treat, or mitigate disease (or other conditions), or provide a beneficial effect on health, but which have not been scientifically proven safe and effective for such purposes. Such practices may be deliberate, or done without adequate knowledge or understanding of the article.*

Federal Trade Commission

The FTC is running Operation Cure All. This encourages reporting of health scams

Unfortunately, consumers spend millions of dollars every year on unproven – and often useless – health products and services. Health fraud trades on false hope. It promises quick cures for dozens of medical conditions – from arthritis and obesity to osteoporosis, cancer and AIDS.
. . .
The Federal Trade Commission is targeting false and unsubstantiated health claims on the Internet through Operation Cure.All – a law enforcement and consumer education campaign.


For once, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has done a good job. Legal loopholes prevent them from doing much about fraudulent advertisements for homeopathy, but they have upheld complaints about the Body Detox Clinic in Newcastle upon Tyne.


“. . .considered that, because the substantiation supplied was anecdotal in nature, it was not robust enough to support the implication that colonic irrigation could relieve the symptoms of: diarrhoea; bloating; haemorrhoids; I.B.S.; colitis; flatulence; bad breath; body odour; headaches; fatigue; M.E.; eczema; psoriasis; dandruff; acne; joint pain; P.M.T; and water retention. Because of that, we concluded that the ad breached the Code.”

“Detoxification” is, of course a bit of meaningless mumbo jumbo that is widely used in the healhfraud industry (see, for example, here and here).

If the ASA can do this, why do they do nothing at all about the mountain of mendacious advertisements for “supplements”and  cosmetics?

Channel 4 TV, Monday 13 August, 8.00 pm in the UK

The Enemies of Reason: new age therapies cause ‘retreat from reason’

The Sunday Telegraph (5 August 2007) gave a bit of advance publicity for “The Enemies of Reason”.

Prof Dawkins says that alternative remedies constitute little more than a “money-spinning, multi-million pound industry that impoverishes our culture and throws up new age gurus who exhort us to run away from reality”.

The first episode can be seen at http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=8669488783707640763


An entire issue of the journal Homeopathy has been devoted to speculations about the memory of water.

The link to this issue is http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/14754916 , but sadly you can’t read the papers without a subscription to the journal (and believe me, they aren’t worth paying much for). With luck, Ben Goldacre will be able to post the full text at badscience.net.

The first paper, The Memory of Water: a scientific heresy?, is by Peter Fisher, the editor of the journal. Peter Fisher, Homeopathic physician to the Queen, is a person whose name appears often in the original IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page, is not at unreasonable man, by the standards of homeopaths. He condemned roundly the recommendation by less-educated homeopaths of homeopathic pills for prevention of malaria. And he did agree with me that homeopathy had not got sufficient scientific basis to justify a BSc degree.

Peter Fisher’s introduction to the issue admits quite frankly that there is no strong evidence for water having memory of the sort that would be needed to explain the claims of homeopaths. There is nothing that explains the bizarre proposition that the medicine gets stronger the more you dilute it. There is nothing that explains the equally bizarre proposition that the water ‘remembers’ only the ingredient that you add, but conveniently forgets the countless other substances that it has encountered in the oceans and the bodies of the vast numbers of animals and plants through which it has passed.

Fisher is also sufficiently honest to include in his special issue a contribution “Can water possibly have a memory? A sceptical view“, written by José Teixeira (a physicist from the European Neutron scattering lab -see some of his publications).


To summarize this short overview, one can say that water is a ‘complex’ liquid with many fascinating, sometimes unique aspects. Except for some academic aspects concerning supercooled water, the structure of the liquid is well known. In particular, it is certain that:

(a) There are no water clusters in pure liquid water, but only density fluctuations.

(b) The longest life of any structure observed in liquid water is of the order of 1 ps [one millionth of a millionth of a second]

This is why any interpretation calling for ‘memory’.effects in pure water must be totally excluded.

The special issue on the memory of water takes us no further. After 200 years, there is still no good evidence.

The UK government, and UK vice chancellors, are exerting a lot of pressure to increase industrial funding in Universities. So far they haven’t listened at all to suggestions that research and commerce don’t mix well. It is asking too much of human nature to think that judgment about an experiment will not be influenced if you have a financial interest in one outcome rather than another. That is why the best researchers (at least in the biomedical field) avoid industry funding whenever possible: they want their results to be seen as independent.

It is well documented now that clinical trials tend to be distorted when they are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. See, for example, Lexchin, Bero et al,. in the British Medical Journal (2003), and Brennan et al. (2006) in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the excellent book. The Truth About the Drug Companies, by Marcia Angell.

Brennan’s proposals for reducing this influence were well received on the whole, though they were opposed by a Dr K.J. Meador of Florida. But them Dr Meador’s letter ended with “Financial Disclosures: Dr Meador reported receiving grants from GlaxoSmithKline, Neuropace, SAM Technology, UCB, and the NIH; acting as a consultant to Abbott, Cyberonics, Eisai, GlaxoSmithKline, Neuropace, Novartis, Ortho McNeil, and UCB; obtaining honoraria from GlaxoSmithKline, Ortho McNeil, and UCB; and receiving salary from clinical electrophysiology, patient care, and an endowed chair at the University of Florida.”. Well, there’s a surprise.

It seems that this has dawned on the University of California. Their central administration, according to a report in Nature magazine (July 2007), has attempted to restrict the way the pharmaceutical industry buy favour in academia. The Nature editorial ends thus,

“. . . the latest policy tries to put the brakes on a trend towards heavier reliance on private funding that this fiscal squeeze has unleashed. The university’s campuses are understandably concerned about their ability to attract funding from all sources so that they can continue to operate at world-class levels. The best course available to them, nonetheless, is to follow the high standards that have recently been set at other academic medical centres, such as those at Stanford University, and to embrace the proposed policy. ”

Quite. It seems that the UK government and UK vice chancellors are going flat out for a policy that is already out of favour at Stanford. They are one step behind again. But then neither are Stanford, Yale and Harvard heading quite so enthusiastically down a path that takes power out of the hands of those who teach and do research.

Of course, Yale still has a Department of Pharmacology. Which is more than UCL has.

Postscript. There is nothing that the quackery industry likes to talk about more than the evils of Big Pharma. What they should remember is that the quackery industry is not only rich, but it is almost 100% fraud. Big Pharma may behave badly at times, but, with on the basis of pure research done largely in universities, they are also the folks who brought you general anaesthetics, antibiotics and all manner of things that have improved and lengthened lives.

Follow up

  • There are some sensible comments about industry funding here. There are always problems, but in some areas they are perhaps not as big as in the biomedical business.

Jump to Times Higher Education coverage

This is a longer version of comments published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, June 1, 2007. This longer version has now been printed in full in Physiology News, 69, 12 – 14, 2007 [download the pdf version].

It has now been translated into Russian.

Download pdf version of this paper.

I should make it clear that the term ‘bean counter’ is not aimed at accountants (we need good honest accountants). Rather it is aimed at a small number of senior academics and HR people who do not understand how to assess people.

How to get good science

David Colquhoun, Department of Pharmacology, University College London (May 2007).
email me

The aim of this article is to consider how a university can achieve the best research and teaching, and the most efficient administration.

My aims, in other words, are exactly the same as every university vice-chancellor (president/rector/provost) in the country. Continue reading

When one thinks of the cult of managerialism, one name that comes to mind is Howard Newby. During his time at HEFCE, research funding became enormously concentrated, rather than being spent on good work wherever it occurred. But Newby is not a scientist, so I suppose he just doesn’t understand how it’s done. Some recent developments in his career seemed worth noting. I make no comment on the changes that left staff at the University of the West of England (UWE) so demoralised, because I don’t know enough about them.

In Nature (December 2001), Newby was quoted as saying

“The improvements in performance since the last RAE are a direct result of institutions managing their research strategically,”

Anybody who thinks that is totally out of touch with how science works. What actually happened, of course, is that universities learned out to fiddle their submissions better. It is just another example of Goodhart’s law.

But what about the following facts?

In the Guardian, Stephen Bates writes thus.

“Sir Howard Newby is continuing his progress through the groves of academe like a ballbearing in a pinball machine, with the announcement yesterday that he is to become the next vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, barely a year since he took up the same post at the University of the West of England [UWE] in Bristol. Sir Howard is gathering such titles – he was previously vice-chancellor at Southampton, before becoming chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and president of Uni versities UK.”

The Guardian in “Will the Newby broom sweep clean?” shows the quality if the argument.

“”Steven West, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, who officially takes over
as acting vice-chancellor on September 1, said that the plans set in place by
Sir Howard would be taken forward and delivered.

“The strategy is right and many
other universities are now going down this road. That’s testimony to the fact
we have got it right,”

Everyone is doing it so it must be right? Ahem, just one problem there surely. Everyone is doing it, but nobody has bothered to try to discover if it has done any good, West’s argument is only too typical of the circular, and data-free, argument so beloved of the management-speak folks, It seems that fashion, rather than results, guide what happens in the world of management bollocks.

The Guardian continues

” . . . university officials said staff were consulted, academics
felt decisions had been made ahead of any conclusions, particularly regarding
the reconfiguring of faculties and a controversial new policy on intellectual

Uhuh. Decisions made before the consultation? Sounds familiar?

But it gets worse,

“The use of management consultancy firms linked to both Sir Howard and his wife, assistant vice-chancellor Lady Sheila Newby, also caused concern.

“They were private companies with no idea about university or academe telling us how to do things and what to do. People got upset because he was running the university life a little fiefdom and giving very big contracts to his mates,”

said one academic, who preferred not to be named.”

And. from Wikipedia, we learn this.

“He was appointed as the vice chancellor of the University of the West of England , starting in March 2006. In May 2007 Private Eye (Eye 1185) reported that Sir Howard has used his position at the University to secure a highly paid job for his wife and to contract services to a company, Carter and Carter, of which Sir Howard is a non-executive director.
Following these revelations it was announced in July 2007 that he will be taking up the post of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool from September 2008. “

The Bristol Blogger puts it rather more bluntly.

“UWE Vice-Chancellor Sir Howard Newby is quitting the university, less than two years in to the job, after becoming embroiled in a major conflict of interest scandal between the university and his private education business Carter and Carter. The episode is said to have caused “disquiet” among many on the university’s governing body.”

“Serious concerns were raised about Newby when it was revealed recently he had concluded a deal on UWE’s behalf with a private sector training company, Carter and Carter. Newby, however is a director of the company and was therefore effectively awarding himself a lucrative public sector contract! Questions have also been asked about his relationship to the university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Her name is Lady Sheila Newby!”

“As for Newby’s big idea to turn UWE into a piece of jargon called a “knowledge exchange” that lies well and truly in tatters. The only exchange that’s gone on at UWE recently seems to be public cash into Newby’s private hands.”

Well, at least the UWE’s “knowledge exchange” doesn’t extend to promoting anti-scientific quackery. But it seems that they may be working on that omission.

More on Newby can be found at Eco-Logic, from someone with first hand experience.

One reason for bad science reporting is that journalists rely too much on press releases from university ‘media departments’. Their output often seems more akin to advertising than to science.

A recent example came from a poor report in the Independent that seemed designed to fuel “electrosmog” hysteria. But the press release from Imperial College was almost as bad. The details are on IMPROBABLE SCIENCE blog.

The Independent on Sunday carried an article with the title “Electronic smog linked to respiratory disease, study shows”, by Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor.

So wifi is bad for you after all?

As usual the reference is not given, But if you look at the original paper (download it here), guess what? It bears little resemblance to the newspaper report. Continue reading

Sigh! The Times Higher Education Supplement (27 July 2007) reports an 31.5% increase in applications for ‘university’ courses in complementary medicine.

Compare this with 19 per cent fall in applications for places on anatomy, physiology and pathology courses, and a relatively low 6 per cent rise in applications for pharmacology, toxicology and pharmacy. Continue reading